Sunday, June 19, 2016

Joyfulness, an Objective Property of the Clear Blue Sky

I have often said to colleagues and friends that I don't believe in Ockham's Razor (AKA the Principle of Parsimony)--that is, the principle that one should not posit more explanatory principles for experience or evidence than is necessary. I suppose this isn't really true; I believe the principle, but I just think that our experience requires a vast number of explanatory principles. I think that the world contains a great plenitude of beings, properties, principles, and so forth, many more than most metaphysicians are willing to posit.

In his Aesthetics, Dietrich von Hildebrand, another very non-reductionistic metaphysician, calls the reader's attention to many phenomena which most philosophers have tried to explain away, but which he thinks cannot be so reduced. Among these are phenomena like the joyfulness of the clear blue sky. To look at the sky on a bright day is to see it as bearing a quality of joyfulness, of "festive splendor". Hildebrand contends (through a description of experience; this may not be the sort of thing that can be deductively argued for) that this is an experience of a property in the sky. It is not a projection of one's own joy, or an experience of the blue sky causing joy, for one can see this joyfulness of the sky when one is in a foul mood. It is not a habitual association of the blue sky with a feeling of joy, nor is it a personification of the sky. Indeed, as Hildebrand astutely contends, any personification of the sky (with a personage such as Jupiter, bringer of jollity) presupposes that one has grasped this quality of the sky. The sky, with this particular coloring, bears this quality, this value. And other features of nature--a desolate cliffside, a field of flowers, a glowering sky--likewise bear objective qualities pertaining to certain feelings. The features of nature do not consciously have these feelings, but they present themselves as bearing qualities corresponding to these feelings. This is, at any rate, the way the world presents itself to us.

Phenomenologically (that is, as an account of our experience), this is surely right. But what should one say about what there really is behind our experience? The parsimonious metaphysician or the naturalistic scientist will reject the claim that there is a real, objective property of joyfulness inhering in the sky. This experience can surely, it will be contended, be explained in terms of the person's interaction with the causal influence of nature. Furthermore, it will be said, there is no such real entity as the blue sky; the appearance that we call the sky can be reduced to other entities: light waves, the constituents of the atmosphere, and so forth.

This is precisely where I balk at the principle of parsimony. For this seems to me entirely wrong. The sky--the glorious dome of heaven, the firmament--is, I hold with every fiber of my being, not reducible, in its full entity, to atoms and waves. Its phenomenality, the way that it shows up in the experience of person, its sacramentality, its poetic and aesthetic value--all these belong to what the sky genuinely is, no less (nay, more) than its physical structure and causes. The metaphysician cannot privilege the naturalistic worldview; no, the metaphysician, the one who seeks to understand reality as it most fundamentally is, must find a place in his system for everything that shows up in the genuine, objective experience of persons.

Toward the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the protagonists meet Ramandu, a "star at rest," a star that has come down to earth to rest a while before resuming his place in the heavens. Eustace, a recovering naturalist, observes that in our world "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas." Ramandu corrects him: "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of." The form of a thing, its true reality, its rich panoply of values and properties, observable by and made for persons, utterly exceeds (but does not leave behind nor denigrate) its matter.

I seek to develop a metaphysics that has room for all these things--physical forces and atoms, yes, but also objective values of beauty, vitality, even joyfulness in inanimate things. It is well to be reminded of the richness of reality, and it is well to hold that this richness is irreducible to anything else, and that is all made for human beings.

This last week, I read Wendell Berry's essay "The Loss of the University." Berry contends that a great problem in contemporary education is that, following Coleridge, we suspend our disbelief when we read the Iliad or the Divine Comedy or whatever. Rather, we should believe, that we might not only learn about these poems, but learn from them, living with the poem "as a piece of evidence that reality may be larger than we thought." Like C.S. Lewis, we must indeed have "some manner of belief" in the Homeric gods. To do less is to set aside some portion of our genuine experience of objective reality, of what is given to us from out there, of what is really real, in favor of safe and defensible, but reduced, account of reality. Joy shines down from the clear blue sky, and terror from the stormy one. This is not my personalizing of inert and neutral matter; it is a glory for persons shining forth from a matter ever laden with value. It is a world that is a message from a Trinity of Persons to other persons, and that is imbued with further persons' messages, a world that invites us, as today's Collect said, to be lovers of God in all things and above all things.

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